How to Teach Historical Martial Arts
Today’s interview is a little bit different because I’m not interviewing anyone. I’m here to talk to you about how to teach. I believe that teaching historical martial arts or anything else is a skill, and as such it can be studied and taught. In other words, you’re not born a good teacher, you become one through mindful practise. So the question, I guess, is how do you set about that in a systematic and useful way that will lead you to your desired result? Well, I have a course. Of course I have a course; I always have a course. I am releasing this week my course on how to teach. Now, before you just dash off and buy it, because you’re just that sort of excellently supportive listener to the show, I think it would be a good idea if you listen to some excerpts and get an idea of what the course is all about and then decide whether it’s really for you. Let’s start with the mental model I use for visualising teaching. How is teaching actually done? How does it really work? So here’s an extract from the course. This is from the section, The Model.
How to Teach Historical Martial Arts, section two, part one: The Model
Human beings are natural learning machines. It’s our job as teachers to facilitate that, not interfere with it. The model I base all my teaching on is the way children learn to walk. How do they manage it? Nobody explains the mechanics or neurology to them. They just see people do it, decide they want to do it too, and try. Every time they get it wrong, gravity provides the necessary feedback.
This is how we learn: we have a goal, we copy a model to reach that goal, and feedback mechanisms tell us how we are doing, so we adjust our actions.
A good goal is clearly articulated, and allows for definitive feedback.
A good model is clear and easy to copy.
A good feedback mechanism is immediate, specific, and unambiguous.
When training a physical skill, the mechanism is ideally kinetic, not verbal or even visual.
Let’s take learning to strike for example. What is the goal, what is the model, and what feedback mechanisms could we use?
Goal: hit the target
Model: strike with mandritto fendente
- Did I hit the target y/n?
- Hard enough y/n?
- Without shocking my joints y/n?
- From far enough away y/n?
- With the correct initiation y/n?
- With control y/n?
- If no target, you can use a mirror or a video camera to check form.
We normally choose ONE aspect of the blow to work on. Power or grip or footwork or timing or measure or edge alignment etc. For example, the buckler game is excellent for teaching timing, but useless for teaching power generation. If you don’t know the drill, I’ve put it in this course section, or if you’re working from the handouts go to guywindsor.net/bucklergame
Notice how the feedback mechanism is immediate, kinetic, and clear. You either hit the buckler in time, or you don’t. There is no need for any kind of clarification from the coach, and it is relatively easy to adjust the intensity to get the optimal rate of failure. Every drill has an optimal level of difficulty: if it’s too easy, the student won’t learn, and if it’s too hard, they’ll get frustrated. We measure the difficulty by how often the student ‘fails’- misses the target, gets hit, or whatever. For most students and most drills, the optimal rate of failure is between 20 and 40%. In short- if they are successful 3 or 4 times out of 5, they’re probably learning. 5 out of 5, it’s too easy; 2 out of 5, it’s too hard. The purpose of the feedback mechanism is to let the student identify success and failure.
Every drill, technique or action should be a solution to a problem that the student has experienced. When you want to teach a technique or concept, you should generate the problem first. This allows the students to internally generate the goal of learning that particular thing, rather than you imposing it from outside. When beginners show up to your beginners’ course, it is because they have identified a problem (such as “I like swords but don’t know how to use them”), and are expecting a solution to that problem (though they don’t usually see it that way themselves).
Teach a parry/riposte as a solution to a previously experienced strike. Teach the counter to the parry as a solution to getting parried.
This is true at every level. For instance, at a class I taught recently I identified lack of fencing memory as a problem in my students. Rather than just teach them our fencing memory drill (see 06.01 Preparing for Freeplay if you don’t know it), I set them a task that required a decent fencing memory: they had to fence to one hit, then reproduce the hit, and let the one who got hit work on preventing or countering it.
Sure enough, after a little while of doing that obviously useful exercise, I asked them if they could reliably reproduce what just happened… or whether we should spend some time on developing their fencing memory. They would have trusted me to just teach them the fencing memory drill and believe it to be useful- but having them experience the problem first made it much easier for them to learn the solution.
Change the environment, not the student The combination of the model and the feedback mechanism creates a natural learning cycle in which the student cannot help but improve towards their goal. Adjust the training environment such that the desired behaviour is rewarded. If you want your student to make a longer strike, move the target further away and they will naturally reach for it. If you want them to riposte faster, leave a smaller window for them to riposte into, and they will naturally speed up to hit you in time.
If you find yourself making technical corrections (bend your knees! Put your weight on your back foot!) then the student will learn these corrections very slowly, because they have to remember them. But if you make it so that the thing they are trying to do only works if they bend their knees, or have their weight on the back foot, or whatever else, then they will learn it very quickly. All they have to do to retain the correction is keep doing the thing in a way that actually works. This is a very simple idea, but can be very hard to do in practice. Simple does not mean easy.
If you can’t generate an environmental pressure that creates the desired change, you should ask yourself why you want the student to make that correction. What is it giving them? What does it actually do? If you don’t know the answer to those questions, then why are you demanding this change?
Ideally you will always create a learning environment in which the student naturally improves without intervention. When you are helping your students master a particular skill, the question you should be asking yourself is ‘how should I change the environment so the student’s action will naturally change in the desired way?’
This is the very essence of my teaching approach, and the thing I am trying to teach you. As you might expect by now, it absolutely requires you to be focussed on your students and what they are doing, not on yourself and what you want to teach.
Teaching is, and often should be, a stealth activity. Let me take a charming example: my kids learning to cook.
Cooking is one of the most important skills a human being should have. If you can cook, you can exert some control over your diet. Your diet represents probably 40% of your long-term physical health (with exercise and sleep being the other 60%). If you can’t cook, you are at the mercy of family, friends, restaurants and corporations for what you can eat. The first two in that list probably have your best interests at heart. The other two? Not so much. So it’s essential parenting to make sure your kids can cook. The key ingredients in cookery are:
- You can use other people’s or invent your own, but you do need some kind of blueprint.
2) Ingredients. You must be able to find and select the ingredients that are right for your recipe.
3) Cooking techniques: chopping, boiling, frying, baking etc. To this end, we let our kids watch shows like Great British Bake Off, YouTube channels like Tania Burr, Nerdy Nummies and so on, because children copy what they see, and while this does tend to encourage some odd habits and turns of phrase (some baking is always done in an American accent in our house), it also leads to exchanges like this:
“Daddy, I want to make a [insert name of vile sugary thing here]”
“Ok, make a shopping list”.
The child then gets a piece of paper, and writes out the ingredients (see how we sneak in some writing practice there?), and we go to the shops. In the shop, we find the ingredients. The kids have to read the labels, and make sure they have enough of everything (for which they need arithmetic). We then buy it, go home, and get to work. Of course, boring old daddy doesn’t like watching the video in the kitchen; oh no, the instructions need writing out too! (“I don’t want flour on my mobile phone…”)
And then we follow the instructions, make the triple-caramel-quad-choc-sprinkle-covered diabetic extravaganza, and eat it, to all-round delight.
The point is, by letting them follow their own interests, we create a momentum in the direction of ‘command of diet’. Now all we have to do is to gently steer that momentum in a healthier direction: “we can only eat that after dinner. So what shall we have for dinner?”; “kids who come shopping get to choose what we eat”; that sort of thing. All of this is why my elder daughter can bake pizza from scratch, makes a mean chicken pie, and has very strong opinions about “store-bought” pastry. My younger daughter is less interested, and so less skilled, but it’s still perfectly normal for her to choose something she wants to make, and set about establishing the recipe, choosing the ingredients, and making it, commandeering whatever help she needs in the process. Grace baked this Pavlova ‘just because’. We helped put it in and out of the oven, but otherwise were not needed…
The major downside is we eat far more crap than we otherwise would- it plays hell with my low-fast-carb diet. But it’s worth it in the long run because whatever diet my kids choose to follow as adults, they will be able to make from scratch, and control exactly what goes into it. I hope they’ll choose wisely, but whether they do or not, at least they will have the choice.
I take the same attitude towards teaching swordsmanship. It’s not for me to sneer at a student who secretly wants to be an elf, or even an ewok. Whatever brings them to the sword is inherently good. It’s then up to me to gently steer that momentum in a more rewarding direction. This is why I begin all my classes by asking the students what they want. Sure, sometimes they ask for things that are bad for them, so I redirect things a little but make it clear that it’s the closest I can get them to the goal they set. It would be fundamentally counter-productive to shut them down or bring their enthusiasm to a sudden stop.
This reminds me of steering a boat. When the boat was stationary (also known as ‘dead in the water’), I couldn’t steer it at all; but when it was under way it took only the gentlest touch to guide it right or left. Sometimes, a wave would hit and bash the ship off-course. Then I let it go, and when the crisis passed a moment later, another gentle touch brought it back to the mark.
That’s how it should feel when you’re teaching.
Next up, let’s take a look at how to construct the environment…
You may have noticed that that was an audio extract. This is because most of the course is delivered through audio files and accompanying PDFs. This means that you can absorb the theory of how to learn to teach while you’re driving your car or cleaning your swords or whatever it is you do while you’re listening to this show. It is much, much more efficient than using video. It is easier to teach historical martial arts themselves through an online course than it is to teach how to teach those arts. And this is because it’s quite simple to set up a video camera, teach the class as if I was just demonstrating in front of a normal class, get you to go off and practise, come back and start the video again, that sort of thing. Teaching historical martial arts is primarily a visual medium, and you only need one training partner to make good use of a video course like that. However, when learning to teach, you need to have students to practise your teaching skills on. And it is simply not practical to have a video class telling you what to do and you pausing it and going away and doing it and pausing it and coming back, that sort of thing. So partly thanks to the way the podcast has upped my audio game, I thought that delivering this course in audio format primarily would be useful. There are, of course, printable PDFs, handouts, practical exercises and video examples where useful, that sort of thing. For instance, when I’m teaching you how to plan and run a beginner’s course, I provide principal class plan blanks which you fill out and plan your course and then as the course progresses, so the last class that you taught, when you fill out the after action review, you’ll use that information to modify the next class. And that, of course, requires you to be actually running a beginners course. So I’m providing you with all the necessary information, all the necessary materials, but it’s up to you to actually get yourself a group of students to teach. I can’t do that for you. So once you have this group of students, what do you do with them? Well, here’s an extract on actually running a basic class:
How to Teach Historical Martial Arts, section three, part three: Teaching and Running the Class.
Demonstrate, Explain, Demonstrate, Practice
Your class plan is broken up into ten minute blocks. Within each of these (apart from the warm-up), you will usually need to show the students what to do, then let them practise. Every keen young instructor I have ever seen shares a common failing: we all talk too much. What should be a one- minute demonstration becomes a fifteen-minute lecture. When teaching teachers, I use a stop-watch to time the relationship between demo and practice. In an exam, more than 1 minute of demonstration for every 3 of practice is an automatic fail. The students aren’t there to listen to you; they are there to practice swordsmanship. If what you want them to do takes more than 2 minutes maximum to explain and show, then it is too complicated for the class you have in front of you. If they need to learn something academic, then by all means begin or end the class with a lecture, with the students seated, taking notes etc. But when they are standing in class, sword in hand, they need to be kept moving.
How should you demonstrate?
Demonstration is a critical skill for an instructor. You have to show them the drill exactly the way you want them to do it, with just enough verbal explanation that they know why they are doing it. So, show them the action, slowly and accurately. Then briefly, briefly, briefly explain it. Then show it to them again, one to four times, switching direction so they can see it from both sides. I quite often get asked to show the action again; I’ll demonstrate it as often as I’m asked to. But I don’t ask for questions. Students who need to ask a question to get the drill will do so whether I ask them to or not, so long as I have established the class environment such that they feel comfortable with me; and as I go round the class, they can ask their question without disrupting everyone else’s practice. If you need to sell them on the action, then do it hard and fast once with an experienced assistant, as the first demonstration. Do not screw this up! If needs be, while they are working on the previous drill, grab your assistant and go over what you’ll want them to do. Then show the class exactly what you want them to do. Never, ever, show them the drill done wrong; it’s a common error in less experienced instructors to anticipate the likely errors, and advertise them to the students. I stopped doing it when I found a young student, whose English skills didn’t quite catch which of the two possible versions he’d seen was the one I wanted him to do, faithfully copying the wrong one. Certainly not his fault!
- Show them exactly what you want them to do.
- Keep the roles the same; if you start out as the defender, stay that way until the end of the demonstration.
- Highlight the bit you want them to focus on, such as the footwork.
- Show it at the speed you want it done, or a bit slower. They will naturally speed up on their own.
- Focus on getting them to do it, not doing it yourself.
- If necessary, prepare the demonstration with your partner beforehand.
So, the time in each block will go something like this: 1-2 minutes of demonstration; 5-6 minutes of practice; possibly 1 minute of class correction, followed by 3 minutes practice. When in doubt, talk less. Only stop the class if you need to. So how do you know when you need to?
The class plan almost never survives intact. A question here, a problem there, and very soon you have taken 14 minutes for a ten minute block. You may have spotted that my example above might be 12 minutes long (2 min demo, 6 min practice, 1 min demo, 3 min practice). This is ok, so long as you don’t try to compress the rest of the material into the time left. Take your time, and drop as much of your material as necessary. I have seen hundreds of class plans in my time, and I have never once seen one with insufficient material for the time allowed. How do you know when to move on, or when you’ve gone too far and need the class to take a step back? In short, if everyone is busy training, leave them to it. If the flow starts to clog up, the class is either unready for the current assignment, so bring them back a step; or ready to move on, so add the next action or move on to the next drill. The flow of the class is greatly affected by the level of difficulty. Too easy, and everyone gets bored, and stops. Too hard, and they get confused or frustrated, and stop. There is a sweet-spot where everyone is challenged but not overwhelmed, and you know they are there when everyone is busily engaged with the content you’ve set them. This is of course an application of the principle of Flow that I wrote about in The Seven Principles of Mastery.
You should stop the class for one of the following reasons only:
- Safety. If things are looking dangerous, stop.
- Obvious error. If more than half the class is making the same mistake, stop and correct the group, rather than make individual corrections.
- If the training flow is clogged either move onto something harder, or step back to something simpler.
- Time: classes must finish on time. It is disrespectful to your class to keep them past the allotted time.
What is the difference between setting the class a new, unfamiliar exercise, and setting them something that most of them know? In short, for new material, demonstrate step by step, and have them do each step before adding the next. Demo for 2 minutes, have them train for 4. For familiar stuff, demo for 1 minute or less, have them practice for 5. If your class is struggling with the material, then take a step back. If they are having trouble with mechanics, the best solution is to give them an exercise that requires them to make the correction in a natural way. For example, if your style requires an upright stance, but the students are tending to lean forward, have them do footwork exercises with something balanced on their heads to keep them upright. Then ask them to focus on the feeling of being upright as they do it. Then have them recreate that feeling during the previous exercise that they were struggling with. If the problem is choreographical, then take them back a step or two in the drill. In every case, bring them back to a place where they can do the actions reasonably well, then build the difficulty back up. I am working on the assumption, which may be flawed, that if you have been teaching for a short while, or are about to start, that you have a basic training in your style, and a comprehensive arsenal of drills and games to draw on for teaching it. If the class has a problem and you don’t have the tools to fix it, then probably the best solution is to change the topic of the class to something else. Or you can cheat: present the class with the problem, and ask them to come up with ways of fixing it. Don’t do this with beginners (unless the problem is very simple). I use this a lot, and it works very well at getting the students involved in the development of new drills and approaches.
The Different Kinds of Practice
The excellent Rory Miller talks about four different kinds of training in martial arts: teaching, training, operant conditioning, and play.
- Teaching, by which he means verbal explanation, is good for theory and background, but useless for teaching fast, hard, physical responses to actions.
- Training, by which he means repetition of known actions, in a low stress environment. This is better than nothing but is a very slow and insecure way to generate useful stress responses.
- Operant conditioning is hard to do well, but by far the most effective training tool for actual violence. It works by breaking the OODA loop. Let me explain: When stuff happens, you first Observe it, then Orient to it, then Decide what to do, then Act. All this takes time, and if your opponent has the initiative, you’re dead. Operant conditioning takes “Orient” and “Decide” out of the loop, and reduces it to what is effectively an instinctive reaction. The way you do it is to set up the stimulus, and make it so that the desired response is instantly rewarded, and so learned. Any other response, including failing to respond, is instantly punished, and so avoided in future.
- It is very effective training to set up games that reward the desired actions. In a lecture on the history of combat, it’s 99% teaching, 1% play, and that’s it. In a basic martial arts class though, it should be 5% teaching, 65% training, and 30% play, or thereabouts. Too much play and you lose the structure; not enough, and it becomes very ineffective. One of my most common exhortations in class is “got it? now play with it.”
What Happens if there’s an Accident?
Swordsmanship training is inherently dangerous. Accidents will happen. Your job is to make sure that they happen as little as possible. There is a fundamental difference between being responsible and being culpable. While students are under your care, you are responsible for their safety. Provided you stick to the syllabus and safety guidelines of your school or club and behave responsibly, you are not culpable even if you are the one responsible.
Before class even starts, there should be at least the following things in place: a first aid kit (check it now!), someone present who is trained in first aid (ideally everyone who ever leads a class is so trained), and a working phone in case of an emergency.
What should you do if?
1) You see a student sitting out? Ask them what’s wrong, help them if needed. They may just be tired, or may have been hit badly but did not want to make a fuss. Always check.
2) There is an accident? Stay calm. Depending on the severity: either apply first aid, apply first aid and organise a lift to the nearest Accident and Emergency room, or apply first aid and call an ambulance.
On a related note, I would say that it is immoral to teach any martial art that requires actions to be repeated that will generate injury over time even if done correctly. It’s just not ok to have your students do things that will reliably create (for example) joint problems in the long term. Assuming that your style is fundamentally mechanically healthy, then it becomes your responsibility to make sure that the mechanics that you teach are sufficiently correct that they will not injure the student. The easiest way to reduce the likelihood of self-inflicted mechanical injury before your own skills are sufficient to teach actions correctly at a deep level, is to keep everything slow and gentle. The lower the forces involved, the less likely an injury is to occur, and the less severe it will be. In the long term though, you should be carefully studying the ergonomics of your style.
Common Problems in Class
- Disruptive questions. You have a student asking too many derailing questions: Tell them to ask them after class. If they persist in talking too much, ask them privately not to. One student had this problem, so I bet him 50 push-ups he couldn’t get to the end of class without talking. He won. I did the push-ups. He said, “I get it”, and the problem was solved.
- Your students know more than you do. Of course it often happens that students may show up to class that have more experience than the person in charge, so how do you push people along who are already ahead of you? This is quite daunting for the inexperienced, but just remember your prime directive, and try some of these key phrases:
“Add a degree of freedom to that”
“Coach for the first two passes then do the drill competitively”
“How’s your grounding?”
- An unresponsive class. This can be hell. And it is especially difficult with a class of people you don’t know. It is very easy to let yourself spiral out of control trying to get a reaction out of them. I suggest the following instead:
- Get them playing a game as a group. For example, the “glove game”, which works in any style. The rules are: 1) everybody has to keep moving 2) throw two gloves into the class 3) students can pick up gloves from the floor, and have to hit other students on the back with them. If you are hit on the back, you’re out. 4) anyone holding a glove can also be knocked out of the game by being tapped on the back with a hand. 5) if you’re holding a glove and are knocked out, you throw the glove away. 6) if it’s safe with your students, allow disarms.
- Get them to plan the class they want; gather them round in a circle and ask them what they want to learn or practise today.
- Don’t take it personally. You’re not an entertainer. If they don’t want to be there, they can leave.
There are some people who find even the most basic actions or sequences incredibly difficult to learn. If you have someone like that in your class, here are some points to remember.
- They can walk and talk. These are both fantastically complicated skills. So they probably can learn swordsmanship. You just have to help them figure out how.
- Reduce complexity as far as possible. For example, give them sword exercises they can do standing still.
- If possible, assign a different senior student to help this person every time the class moves on.
- Keep rotating the class pairings, so that nobody gets stuck with them, and they don’t feel like they are holding someone back.
- Praise their effort. Tell them that progress will come.
- Suggest taking a short video of them now, which nobody will look at yet, and another video of them doing the same exercise in three or six months’ time. Watch the two clips side by side, together with the student, to give you both a clear sense of their progress. They will probably be amazed by the difference.
Aggressive or Unsafe students
They do exist, and it can be hard to get through to them that their behaviour is unacceptable. Let me remind you though of the prime directive. Your first and highest responsibility is to the wellbeing of your students. So you must be able to ask a person to sit out an exercise, or even leave the class. I have had many senior students with the physical competence to teach great classes, but whose promotion to teaching has been delayed while we worked on their ability to take command when necessary. Age can also be a factor; very young students learning to run classes can find it especially hard to command older students. It is well worth modelling this situation (as you would model accidents in a first aid class), and actually practise asking a person to leave. You will have the backing of your other students, because nobody wants to train with an unsafe person. If you have any doubts on this score, then appoint a back-up person, someone you trust, whose job in class is to back you up if you need to confront a student. Confront is a bad word. If this situation arises, do everything you can to let the person in question save face. Take them quietly aside and gently remonstrate; if that doesn’t work, take them aside again and ask them to leave. Have your backup person standing next to you when you do it, but ideally, nobody else in class is even aware that someone has been expelled. Of course, if their actions have been obvious and public, then you need to face them down. But again, leave them their pride, and let them leave in peace.
Back in the bad old days of martial arts, “dojo busting” was quite common. People would go round challenging martial arts teachers to fight; if the teacher lost, all their students would leave them and join the school of the dojo buster. When I opened my school, I was concerned that it might happen to me, and I’d either kill someone or lose my school. It never did happen, and I’ve not heard of it happening in real life in the last 20 years. But I asked a senior Finnish martial arts teacher about it, and his answer was simple: if someone comes dojo busting, just ask them to leave. If they don’t, then call the police. Good advice.
It only remains to define success. In order of importance, your basic class was successful if:
- There are no injuries.
- Everyone was busy
- They ended class better martial artists than they started it
- The theme goal was met.
Teaching is a skill. You learn it by doing. So get to work!
And up next, let’s look at bringing the historical aspect of historical martial arts into your classes. The course is divided up into sections. The first section is the welcome, which basically orients you and lets you know what’s on the course and how to go about using it. Section two is the model and you’ve had an extract of that already, which basically describes the theory of how to teach and particularly how to learn to teach. Section three is about teaching classes, especially teaching basic classes, but it also includes how to teach an advanced class. Then we have a section on how to set up and teach an individual lesson and a section on planning and teaching a beginner’s course. Then we have perhaps the meatiest section of all, which is skill development. It is relatively easy to set up choreographic drills and communicate those to your students. It is also relatively easy to set up free play. The problem is, if that’s all you have, then the stuff that happens in free play looks nothing like the drills. Perhaps the most important aspect of the course for the historical martial arts community as a whole is the section on skill development, where we have a look at how to systematically increase the level of complexity and the level of intensity that your students are training under so that they are failing at their optimal rate, learning as fast as they reasonably can, and actually acquiring genuine skills, not just the knowledge of the choreography. I illustrate this process by taking the exchange of thrust from Fiore and Capoferro’s parry and riposte in one tempo and seeing how you can set up the choreography and then work on actually developing the skill that those actions represent or require. It is much easier to teach effectively if you have a well constructed syllabus to teach with. So of course I include a section on syllabus design. This goes into details about not just constructing the syllabus as a whole, but also looking at how you can design the drills within that syllabus to be easily memorised and easily applied to actual skill development. And with our nicely designed syllabus in place, we then move on to looking at how to teach teachers, which is, if you think about it, extremely meta. It’s a course about how to teach historical martial arts and there’s a section on how to teach people to teach historical martial arts. How deep does the rabbit hole go? Pretty damn deep. It’s my belief that beginners are the lifeblood and the future of any martial art. And that goes double for beginner teachers. So this course has been designed and built and optimised so that someone who has never taught any historical martial arts before should find a simple and straightforward approach that they can apply straight away the moment they get the opportunity to actually teach somebody. But it also goes into enough depth and enough detail that it should be useful to instructors of any level of experience. You can find the course at guywindsor.net/teach. This episode is going live on September 30th and for the next five days you can get 40% off the price by using the link. guywindsor.net/teach. After that point, that link will still go to the course, but the discount will no longer be applied. So that’s guywindsor.net/teach. As with all of my courses, it comes with a no quibble, no questions asked, 30 days money back guarantee. So if you try the course and decide it’s not for you, that’s fine. Just let me know and I will refund your purchase. No questions asked, no harm, no foul. And I really can’t help myself. There’s one thing I wish everyone knew about teaching historical martial arts, and that is how to get the book that you are basing your art from or basing your art on into the class in such a way that the students can actually engage with it. So it’s clear that what you’re teaching is a historical martial art and not just something you made up last Tuesday. So I’m just going to finish off with a little extract from the course, which is how to get the book into the class.
How to Teach Historical Martial Arts, section three, part four:
How to get the book into the class.
Historical Martial Arts are distinct from other kinds of martial arts in that we base our art on historical sources. This means that the teacher is in effect a mediator between the student and the source or sources (The Book) that your art is based on. You should enable the students that want to work directly with The Book to do so. It is never too early in a student’s training to introduce them to The Book. Here are the key elements of connecting the student to the source:
Put The Book on Show:
Have The Book there in the salle, and open to whatever page is most relevant to what you are doing in class. This is vital: so much so that I built a lectern especially to hold my sources when teaching in my home salle in Helsinki. A physical book is better than a screen, because it encourages students to touch it and turn the pages. Most people are understandably shy about fiddling about with someone else’s laptop, but will happily flick through a book.
Connect Actions to The Book:
Regularly connect what you are doing in class with what’s in the book. For instance, once I have taken a beginner’s class through the first couple of blows (right shoulder, extended, to left hip; then return through the extended position and up to the shoulder) I show them posta di donna destra, posta longa, dente di zenghiaro, mandritto fendente and roverso sottano in the Getty Ms. This takes only a minute or two (don’t go off on an academic sidetrack), but makes it really obvious where our actions are coming from, and connects the action to The Book. I tell my beginners that I live in mortal fear that somebody might one day leave one of my classes with the impression that I’ve made this all up.
Quote The Book
Whenever you are demonstrating an action from The Book, try to use the language from The Book. For instance, when I’m teaching Fiore’s breaking the thrust, I might say:
“As Fiore tells us, step the front foot out of the way and pass across”
“As Fiore wrote, when you’re breaking the thrust ‘pigla cum il fendente’, “grab it with a fendente””
This way the students are continually connecting what we are doing with The Book. It’s ideal to use the original language every now and then for key phrases, but you should usually include a translation (such as when I’m teaching sword and buckler from I.33, I’ll say “ligans ligati contrarii sunt et irati. Fugit at partes laterum. Peto sequi. The binder and the bound are contrary and irate. He flees to the side. I seek to follow”). This is no different from judo teachers teaching ukemi not ‘falls’. How much of the original terminology you expect the students to learn is a matter of syllabus design, but especially if The Book isn’t written in English, you as the teacher should be prepared to at least acknowledge that fact to the students. It’s worth memorising a few key phrases to convey the flavour of what we are trying to do.
As a professional historical martial arts teacher I feel it’s a matter of professional ethics to be able to work with my sources in their original languages. That’s why I don’t teach German martial arts, or Hungarian. You would expect a University professor of Russian Literature to be able to read Russian, right? But for unpaid teachers it’s not reasonable to expect that level of academic depth, so you may be working from translations. That’s fine, so long as that’s made clear to the students, and you take a moment to explain that your understanding of the source is mediated through somebody else’s translation. Keep a copy of that translation there with The Book (or use a combined edition) so that students can actually read it, and yes, check up on you…
Skin in the Game
When I show beginners The Book, I’ll tell them that sometimes what we are doing in class is not exactly what’s shown in the source. There can be three reasons for this: 1. I’ve made a mistake. 2. I have deliberately adapted the original technique for reasons that I can explain. 3. The student is mistaken in their interpretation. Then I invite the students to catch me out, and tell them that sometimes I’ll depart from the source deliberately just to see if they are paying attention. I’ll also sometimes put some skin in the game: if they catch me in a mistake, I’ll do 50 push-ups (or similar). This introduces a playful element, and really encourages the students to try to catch me out, which means they’ll actually go check the source.
Departing from The Book
Of course, not everything you do in class is straight from The Book, but you need to be clear about what is direct from the source, what’s been adapted, and what’s been brought in from somewhere else. I’m a big fan of bringing in outside elements, but it has to be done carefully or you end up with a Frankenstein’s monster of a system, with bits cobbled together that don’t really fit.
For instance, the Getty manuscript is my primary source when teaching Armizare, but when we are covering the third master of the dagger, I’ll usually use the disarm as shown in the Pisani-Dossi manuscript. This is a very cool technique, but more importantly is a firm reminder that there is more than one version of the treatise.
In my rapier course and workbooks, which is my interpretation of Capoferro’s art, I include a rapier and cloak technique from Alfieri. This reminds students that there is more than one source, and having gained a thorough grounding in one rapier style, they should absolutely work with other sources to gain a broader knowledge.
The key concept is transparency. It should be absolutely clear to every student that cares about historicity where what you are teaching them is coming from. And as the future of the art depends on students getting stuck into the research side of things, it’s part of your remit to encourage and enable students to begin working with the sources. Next up, let’s look at how to run an advanced class.
I really hope that was useful and interesting for you. And of course, you can find the course at guywindsor.net/teach. And remember that 40% discount offer is only valid until Wednesday 5th of October. Thanks for listening. I hope you enjoyed this little foray into how to teach.